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Digging for Answers: A Black Miner Ponders Racism

Richard L. Davis, the most important black leader of Ohio’s miners, was called upon frequently in the 1880s and 1890s to serve as a spokesman for the many black miners in his home state, as well as the thousands more who labored in Alabama, Tennessee, and West Virginia. He was also called upon to serve as an intermediary between black rank-and-file miners and the white majority and white national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), dealing with such issues as black participation in the union, strike breaking by African Americans, and the racist attitudes of many rank-and-file white miners toward African Americans. (Davis was twice elected to the UMWA’s executive board.) In this series of six letters submitted in 1891 to the National Labor Tribune, Davis reflected on the larger meaning and purpose of interracial unionism in an era of rising racial tensions and institutionalized discrimination.

In this February 1891 letter to the National Labor Tribune, R. L. Davis reported the decision by some of his fellow Hocking Valley Black Ministers to form a separate organization following the alleged denial of equal access to the diminishing number of jobs in the field. Davis, both as a black miner and a UMWA official, had agreed to investigate the charges of discrimination against black miners. In a letter dated February 3, 1891, Davis notes that he had found no evidence to support the charges. Nevertheless, Davis used the opportunity to attack racial discrimination as destructive of the basic union impulse.

Davis to NLT Editor, Feb. 14, 1891:

In my last I gave an account of the mutiny in our ranks so far as the colored miners were concerned. I am pleased to say that the trouble is all over and our people have concluded to stick to the U.M.W. of A. in the future as in the past. After the matter [of alleged discrimination] was investigated and found to be untrue they [the black miners] readily gave up the idea of withdrawing from the organization. Of course there are one or two who are sorry that it proved to be untrue, and argue that the matter was simply patched up to restore peace. They are the only hindrance in the way, but their number being so small we can easily manage them. Yet I hope nothing of the kind will again occur. If there is a mine in th[is] state of [the] United States that has a rule to not allow colored men to work in them, for God’s sake at once remove that barrier, for the sooner it is removed the better it will be for all concerned. Right here I wish to use some of our people’s arguments when we try to convince them that by joining the labor organizations they help to do away with the prejudice that once existed. They say this: ‘You are an organized man; why it is that you cannot go to Shawnee or Straitsville [other mining towns in the Hocking Valley field] and many other places to work?’ Now I don’t know of any colored man who ever worked at Straitsville or Shawnee, and I have never been there to look for work, but I have always had an idea that I could have gotten work if I had tried. At any rate I would like some colored union miner to get work in those mines. Sometimes they ask me, “Did colored miners ever get into any certain locality as miners unless they went as blacklegs or under wagers?” Now I have never blacklegged or worked under wages, and I can’t answer the question. I would like someone to answer this question through the columns of your valuable paper, so that I can give them an answer. I know it has been only too true in many instances that I know of. Now if the mines were thrown open to all miners irrespective of color it will do away with the fear that is entertained by the white miners that the negro will take their places in times of trouble. I simply throw out these suggestions that my fellow miners may consider and ponder over them for the general good of organized labor.

By the end of March 1891, Davis reported further complaints by black miners of discrimination. Davis notes that his efforts to find a workable compromise on this volatile issue were often unappreciated, particularly by his fellow black miners. But Davis expresses his steadfast support, nonetheless, for the importance of unionism.

Davis to NLT Editor, Feb. 28, 1891:

Rumor has it that the writer will not be allowed to work any more in this mine. Just how true this may be I don’t know, but I do know this, that Mr. Rend [the coal operator] in the meeting Monday classed me among those generally termed agitators, and who keep up the trouble around the mines; yet what surprises me so muchly is the fact that all those who have anything to say against me are of my own race (colored men), and why I can not tell unless it is ignorance. However, I will still hold on to that which I think to be the only method of bringing about the emancipation of labor, viz., organization. No matter what they may do or say I will certainly stick to that which I think is right, and in the end I think victory will be on my side of the house.

In a May letter to the NLT, Davis describes in some detail the various types of black oppositionists to the UMWA (he dubs them “kickers”) in the Hocking Valley. While critical of these black miners who opposed the union, Davis took the opportunity to underscore the essential truth of the “kicker’s” demands for fair treatment.

Davis to NLT Editor, May 30, 1891:

Then we have [the] kicker who says it is no use to belong to the organization when it will allow a place like Straitsville to rule the balance of the miners of the state. Then we have the kicker who says that when we had no organization we had more work, more money and less trouble, and that since he has been in the organization he has neither work nor money, but is always in trouble. This man never looks at the conditions and changes that have taken place in the last few years. No, no! He cannot, for he is not built that way, or, in other words, he has not sense enough to know that things have changed since ten years ago. Then we have another kicker who says he is not willing to longer remain in the organization, as there are no colored salaried officers; therefore, in his opinion, providing it to be an organization entirely of the white man, and he (the negro) is simply paying his money to build up the white men of the country, while the poor negro must be satisfied with being a member of the organization just to keep it going. Then we have another kicker who says he is not willing to be a member of a labor organization until the doors are thrown open to the negro where ever he may go in search of employment, and until such times he will never be a union man. Kicker, how can we ever expect to get these barriers removed until we ourselves become organized and show ourselves to be men the same as any other race of men? And again, I don’t think this kicker has ever read our [U.M.W.] constitution or he would know that our laws touches [sic] upon [t]his matter very plainly.

Having given a brief account of the different kinds of kickers, I will say that I hope some of these things will be remedied. I think there is room for several colored organizers in this country and they should be sent out by all means. It is but just fair that some of the money paid in should go out into the hands of colored men, inasmuch as he [sic] has paid his quota as well as the whites, and it is evident that were more colored organizers in the field we would have a larger membership of that race. We want to build up our organization, and let us do it.

The difficulty of balancing between the demands of black miners and the sometimes racist attitudes of white miners is evident in Davis’s reply to a white critic who claimed that Davis’s previous letters had encouraged African Americans to stay out of the UMWA.

Davis to NLT Editor, June 13, 1891:

Now, in reference to some of my former letters. It has been said that some of them have had a tendency to cause the colored men to withhold themselves from the organization. Now I wish to say that if such is a fact it was unintentional on my part. On the contrary, my object has been to get every one of my race who delves into the bowels of the earth, risking life and limb for a mere pittance—I say it has been my object to get them all to see the necessity of connecting themselves with our organization, and I don’t want it understood by any one that I wish to retard the growth of the organization in the least. I am only sorry that it has fallen to my lot to advocate these reforms. It is evident to me as well as others that such steps as have been advocated by me are in every sense of the word necessary, and should not need any advocacy by me or any one else. I believe the day has come when men should have equal rights without having to ask for them. Fellow miners, don’t you think so, too? No, don’t think that I would do anything to retard the growth of the organization, for it would not be true. I am one of those who believe[s] that every man or woman who earns their bread by the sweat of the brow should and ought to belong to a labor organization. Trusting that these few words may set me right in the minds of the public, I am yours for organization.

At the end of July 1891, Davis responded to a letter in the NLT from a black miner who had gone to the coal fields near Seattle, Washington, to work in the midst of an ongoing strike. Such black strikebreaking had engendered a violent and racist response, not only on the part of the striking white miners, but also from the Seattle labor movement as a whole. Davis asked for space to reply at length to the strikebreaker’s attempted justification of his actions, which Davis saw as the most fundamental threat to successful interracial organization.

Davis to NLT Editor, July 25, 1891:

The gentleman writes well and no doubt could make a good campaign speech for one or the other of the two rotten parties, but when it comes to the labor question he is a complete failure. From what I can glean from the gentleman’s letter he wants to substantiate his actions by taking the places of the white miners of Franklin and other mining towns in the state of Washington. Now I believe that the negro should be allowed to work anywhere that he please so long as he proves himself to be a man, but a blackleg, as I take the writer of the article above to be, should not be allowed to live among decent people. The gentleman goes on to say that the whites deny him the right to make a contract to suit himself. I believe that in any locality where the conditions are the same, if any contracts are to be made they should be made by all and for all, both white and colored. He says that they try to murder and assassinate them. I would like to ask the gentleman this question, suppose that you were working in a place and the company brought in three or four hundred white men to take your places, what would be the result? I fancy you would not speak as you do now. No, sir, you would pick [up] your gun if you had one, and you would try to kill every white man that you saw, whether he was your enemy or not.

He further goes on to say that 28 years ago he was a chattel slave; today he is a free American citizen. How utterly false! None of us who toil for our daily bread are free. At one time, as he said, we were chattel slaves; today we are, one and all, white and black wage slaves, and it is just such actions as we have seen taken in the state of Washington that has [sic] for years been forging the chains of bondage around us more firmly, and if it continues we will find ourselves abject slaves, and that very soon. I think the time has come that the negro should know better than to run from place to place to break down wages, etc. He can plainly see that the money kings of this country are only using him as a tool to fill his [sic] own coffers with gold. Does any negro think that an operator thinks any more of him than he does of a white man? If you do, you are sadly mistaken, for I remember several instances right here in this valley: whenever the colored men asked for that which was something like right and just, the answer was, whenever you colored men want the same as the whites do then we have no further need for you. This was the answer. Now then I would say to the negro, of which race I am proud to be connected, let us be men; let us demand as much for our labor as any other nationality; let us not suffer ourselves to be trampled upon any more than any other people. We are a people; we are men; we constitute one-sixth of this great country so far as numbers are concerned, consequently it is not a white man’s country; it is partly ours as well, so let us prove ourselves men and the equal of any others. We can do it. I want to say that the labor organizations will do more for the negro than any political party can or ever will do. So let us into them and try to make this country what it should be.

Writing in late August 1891, Davis again addressed the important question of black strikebreaking, this time concerning the attempt by a white labor agent to secure Ohio black miners to break a mine strike at Raymond, West Virginia. The Raymond strike and Davis’s response to it are of particular interest because the Raymond strikers were all white and had consistently refused in the past to work with black miners. While sharply critical of such exclusionary attitudes, Davis nonetheless supported the Raymond strikers' cause and even worked in Ohio to secure funds in support of the strike.

Davis to NLT Editor, August 29, 1891:

I understand that a gentleman, if I must call him such, was in our town last week looking for men to go to Raymond City, W. Va., to work, and, as is the usual custom, none are wanted but colored men. Well, Mr. Stuart, we don’t think you will get any from this place. True, our men are hard up, but they will suffer a little longer before they will go to Raymond to blackleg the honest miners who have been so long struggling for their rights. No, no! we have learned better than that now, so you may go a town further for your scabs, for we have quit breeding them. We are beginning to learn that an injury to one is the concern of all, and we cannot better our conditions running from place to place, taking the places of our fellow men. It has long been an understood fact that the miners of Raymond would not let a negro work with them. We wish to show them that we are human beings, and want the same wages for our labor as they do, and we earnestly hope that they will remove the barrier that stands between them and the negro, and let us work along peaceably and brotherly alongside of each other. Some may say, “Oh, I am tired of that cry.” I myself am tired of it, but I can not refrain from bringing it before your notice time and again, until you say to the negro, “Come on, as long as you prove yourselves men; as long as you act from principle; as long as you demand for your labor the same as we do, we accept you as a brother and a friend.” For he is none other than your brother, though his skin may be dark; though some of them may be illiterate, I want to say that the negro is becoming better educated now-a-days and is trying to keep pace with the times just the same as his white brother, and he is not going to stop, either; he is going to continue onward and upward until he shall have reached the same standard as his white brother. Oh, he is hustling; you can remove your fears about us. All we ask is, give us a chance and we will make our own name; that is all the assistance we ask. Give us a chance. This may sound simple, but it is true. I long to see the day when the negro is regarded as the equal of his Caucasian brother. Yours in the cause of labor.

Source: R.L. Davis to National Labor Tribune, 1891.